It’s the Pits: Persea Naturals is Another Ben Franklin Success Story in the Making


Imagine mac and cheese, nacho chips and other packaged goods made with natural coloring that comes from avocado seeds instead of artificial colors. That’s the genius behind Persea Naturals and its flagship, patent-pending product, AvoColor. This disruptive natural food coloring compound produces colors ranging from yellow up to orangey-red. Virtually any food, beverage, baked good, confection — anything orange, yellow or red — could potentially use AvoColor. 

The natural food coloring industry is worth somewhere around $1.6 billion. Sometime around 2012, the value of the natural food color industry surpassed that of artificial colors. With the writing on the wall, this multi-year trend has inspired many consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies to publicly commit to removing artificial colors from their products by 2023. 

“We have space at Innovation Park,” says Parkhill. “It has been so advantageous in allowing us to connect with other entrepreneurs and enterprises in Happy Valley. In the long-term, we also intend to grow our research and development to explore other compounds in the [avocado] seeds that can be used in products like animal feeds, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. That’s all work that will stay local, right here.”

And Persea Naturals is primed and poised to disrupt the natural food coloring market with its innovative product. After going through one of Ben Franklin Technology Partner’s TechCelerator programs and receiving funding that helped aid in earlier testing in preparation for FDA approval, this Happy Valley company needs to raise another $1 million to cross the finish line.

A New Kind of Natural Food Coloring

“There are currently natural colors available in [the] same hues,” notes Steve Parkhill, COO and president of Persea Naturals, as he discusses AvoColor. “But all of those products are derived from vegetables and fruits, so you’re essentially competing with human consumption. You have to harvest carrots, beets or other foods and process them into the food color.”

AvoColor, on the other hand, utilizes avocado pits, which are being thrown away at a rate of thousands of tons every month, and essentially upcycles them. It gives Persea Naturals a unique cost advantage and an abundance of raw materials to work with. 

“We’re solving two problems in the marketplace. First, avocado processors are faced with huge landfill issues since there’s no other use for the seeds. Second, the existing natural food colors need various different raw materials to make different hues while ours uses just one,” says Parkhill. 

AvoColor is water soluble, which makes it easier to introduce into beverages and other foods. It’s also very stable, while other natural colors fade over time. AvoColor is at two years and counting on its shelf life in color stability. 

How It Started 

Back in 2005, Persea Naturals co-founder Dr. Greg Ziegler was working on a high school science project with his son. The project required the duo to grind up avocado pits, and what they found was a bright orange liquid that came out of the process. With his curiosity piqued, the Penn State University food scientist did some research and discovered that no one had yet identified this compound. 

Ziegler recruited a few of his fellow food scientists, Dr. Josh Lambert and Dr. Emmanuel Hatzakis, and they continued working to identify and isolate the compound. The group decided to pursue commercialization in 2016. They formed Persea Naturals, filed a number of patents and hired a CEO to begin commercializing this new plant-based natural food color. 

How It’s Going

There are always challenges being a small company trying to get the attention of bigger corporations like Hershey, Pepsi, Coke or Mars. The go-between is often a multinational food color or food ingredient company that helps the large CPGs develop their recipes and determine the ingredients to use in a product or product revamp. 

In the long line of Persea Natural’s challenges, first, AvoColor needs to gain FDA approval. The petition process requires a lot of safety work. After all, a product must be safe for humans to consume. Parkhill explains, “We started with a small mouse study at Penn State to see if it was worth doing a broader study on rats, which forms the foundation of that safety work and meets the requirements of the FDA.”

Now, Persea Naturals is getting close to the finish line. Parkhill notes, “When you’re dealing with the FDA, it’s a longer process than, ‘Hey, this is a really cool product — let’s launch it and build a business.’ You have to wait until you have approvals, which can take a year or longer to get.”

The company has just one study left before it can file its color additive petition with the FDA. 

But before that, it needs to raise capital. 

“It’s a very expensive test. Our last one was several hundred thousand dollars and this one will be more. We also have to produce enough Avocolor to use in the study. So we’re in a holding pattern as we build our inventory in preparation for the study,” says Parkhill.  

Persea Naturals considers this holding pattern to be the “Goldilocks,” middle-of-the-road solution that will allow it to build the appropriate resources, personnel and talent to get the work done. With some help, it can get to final approvals much more quickly. The company has already raised $1.5 million, and is looking to raise another $1 million to complete the project. 

“With that kind of assistance, we’re hopeful that we’ll have our approvals in place in about two years, at the end of 2023,” concludes Parkhill. 

What the Future Might Hold

Although the company has no plans to leave Happy Valley, Persea Naturals may eventually expand beyond the region. 

“We have space at Innovation Park,” says Parkhill. “It has been so advantageous in allowing us to connect with other entrepreneurs and enterprises in Happy Valley. In the long-term, we also intend to grow our research and development to explore other compounds in the [avocado] seeds that can be used in products like animal feeds, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. That’s all work that will stay local, right here.”

As far as the crushing of avocado seeds and actually making Avocolor, it makes more sense to do that where the avocado trees are located. As Parkhill points out, “Unfortunately, there aren’t many avocado trees here in Pennsylvania. So we will be expanding to include facilities in California, Texas or Mexico for that extension of our dream.” 

Another Happy Valley Success Story in the Making

Like so many organizations fueling Industry 4.0 from Happy Valley, Persea Natural Foods credits the thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem with helping it get its start. Close ties to the university and funding support from various sources has helped set this natural food coloring disruptor on the path to success.

For example, the funding it received from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and from Ben Franklin Technology Partners was integral in allowing it to complete early-stage testing.  Additionally, Persea Naturals participation in the BF TechCelerator@State College, a 10-week business boot camp helped its co-founders take it from a food science experiment to a stable, commercially-viable product.  

Ben Franklin made two investments in Persea Naturals totaling $350,000. “They’ve benefited from being in our incubator,” explains John Siggins, Portfolio Manager with Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA. “It’s given them access to one of the labs outfitted with wet lab equipment. Additionally, through our Business Transformation Services, we’ve provided help with matters like HR and accounting to assist Persea Naturals as they’ve advanced forward.”

To learn more about AvoColor and Persea Natural Foods, visit 


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